Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Catholic and Social Justice

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,  and all the nations* will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous* will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’  And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25: 31-40

Social Justice.  Fewer words cause more controversy in the political and religious spheres.  I believe that the controversy stems from an utter lack of understanding in what the concept means.  For some, these words represent the corporate responsibility of peoples to utilize government to the public welfare.  For others, these words represent the guise that many who favor socialism or communism use as a way of the redistribution of wealth.  Still others who favor a socioeconomic Darwinism see this as the seizure of their goods to be given to those who are undeserving.  What does the Church actually teach about this?

We should start by answering the question as to what justice itself is.  The concept has taken on the meaning in our culture of a person getting what their actions deserve.  This is certainly the operative meaning in our criminal justice system.  The socioeconomic Darwinist would apply this definition in regards to society.  What does the Church say?  First, understand that 'justice' is one of the four Cardinal Virtues. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1807, it is stated, " Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.Justice towards God is called the 'virtue of religion".  Justice towards men disposes one to resp[ect the rights of each and to establishing human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regards to persons and to the common good."

This is lived on two levels, not one.  First, as is seen in the Last Judgement Sequence, justice finds itself in what are commonly called the corporal works of mercy and, by extension,  the spiritual works of mercy as well.  In no teaching of Jesus does He command love or mercy only to the deserving, but commands love and mercy even to the undeserving, which He says is in imitation of the Father. (see Matthew 5: 43-48)  To see a need and simply do nothing is not an option in the Christian life.  In fact, it is a sin of omission. The onus, though, is on the individual first.  Many times, social justice warriors will concentrate their time and energy on institutions they perceive as unjust without looking towards their own injustices and lack of mercy.  Rallying for a government or business to be just is not a replacement for the person themselves exercising justice. 

To do so is the height of hypocrisy. It is tantamount to what we see in so many 'cause celebre' out there.  To give an example: the actor who on the one hand screams about global warming yet who owns multiple homes, cars, yachts, and such.  It smack of Gnosticism.  "I know the secret knowledge which exempts me from acting justly." We cannot demand corporate entities change or become just in lieu of my own action. Charity, as they say, begins at home.  Jesus' primary directive towards justice is aimed at the individual first.  This is why paying taxes does NOT absolve one of charity.

With this said, as Catholics, we do have a responsibility to be sure that the entities to which we belong reflect our own commitments to justice.  It is upon us to influence corporate entities to  be just and to use those entities to ensure the welfare of the populace.  Here, political and economic arguments can be made as to what system will best do this.  I am not going to tackle that here.  The Church herself favors no political or economic system; rather, she gives standards that should be used in seeing to the welfare of the citizens or workers of the various corporate entities.  The general guidelines point to a respect for the integrity and dignity of the human person; that the person is never reduced to a thing to be used and disposed with upon end of use.   These would include the sins that cry out to heaven: "There are particular mortal sins that are so evil that they are said to be sins that cry to heaven for vengeance: murder (Gn 4:10), sodomy (Gn 17:20-21), oppression of the poor (Ex 2:23), and defrauding workers of their just wages (Jas 5:4)." (taken from catholic answers website)

Social justice is an extension on the corporate level of the demands of justice on the personal level.  One is not the exclusion of the other.  We can quibble as to what is covered and what is not; where charity ends and enabling begins.  The point is, we can never absolve ourselves of the duties we have to be just, to care for those in need (deserving or not), and to be the face of the love and mercy of God.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Bucking the Establishment: In the Church and in the State

The last three days I have been ill.  This has given me a lot of time looking at the internet, Facebook, and the news.  This has probably not helped my illness.  However I see a thread of thought throughout the postings.  In a phrase: To hell (literally) with the establishment!  The establishment is killing us! It really does not matter whether it is a thread about politics or religion, the sentiment is the same.  The establishment has ground to a halt, weighed down with corruption and greed.  The sides in the debate will agree with this.  Their answers to set things anew really fall into three camps: the purists, the anarchists, and the compromisers.

First, to American politics:  This political cycle might well be described as the rise of the outsider.  This is true for both parties.  I am by no means a political analyst, but here is my take. 

In the Democratic party you have Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a man who is not a self identified democrat, but a self identified socialist who caucuses with the Senate Democrats.  In other cycles, Senator Sanders might well have been easily dismissed and out of the race by now.  The democrat establishment candidate, former 1st Lady and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton seemed a shoe in for the nomination.  However Sen. Sanders is tapping into the youth and others who feel that the DNC has not fulfilled their promise of utopia.  These people have been raised with an idea that life should be fair, free, and easy; that the governments job is to make life such.  Mrs. Clinton, who herself is far to the left, seems establishment by comparison.  Gov. Martin O' Malley, who might well have been a shoe in for the nomination is decades past can garner no traction at all.  I do not know who will win that DNC primary, but it seems it will be a brutal race. 

In the Republican party, you have a similar fight.  You have Donald Trump, a multi-billionaire businessman, who is seen by many as the ultimate outsider.  A man, they perceive, as the one who gets things done, beholden to no one in the party.  You have Sen. Ted Cruz, a man reviled by the establishment, who seems to be a strict constitutionalist, running second.  The closest establishment candidate, and even some would argue this, would be Sen. Marco Rubio.  The GOP field was littered with political outsiders: Mr. Trump, businesswoman Carly Fiorina, and pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.  Establishment candidates like Gov. Jeb Bush,  Gov. Chris Christie, Gov. John Kasich, and such have never really been a factor in the race.  Many in the GOP want a guy who can get things done.  Others want a guy who will adhere to the constitution, something they believe the parties have long abandoned.

In the races, both parties are contending with chunks of the population who are widely dissatisfied with the status quo.  Their dissatisfaction comes from a variety of sources, each wanting the body politic to move in a particular way.  The anger is palatable from all sides.  They perceive a country reeling from years of compromise, weakness, and corruption.  I do believe most of these people love their country and do want this country to succeed.

Next, to the Catholic Church. There has always been a division, it seems, through my life in the Church.   As with the body politic, there is real angst in the Body of Christ.  In Protestant faiths, if there be a disagreement, you simply split off and form a new Church.  In the Catholic Church, we stay in, for the most part, and slug it out.  There are many who want a Church who will return us back to what is perceived as the glory days of the Church (aka, before Vatican II) and those who see the same perceived lack of inertia and think we need to compromise further (aka Spirit of Vatican II).  They have taken to the internet and other forms of media.  I notice some, like Michael Voris, have started referring to the powers that be in the church as the establishment.

So why all the angst? Most perceive that the numbers have fallen in the developed world.  Traditions are dropped, it seems, and things watered down.  Those who are faithful Catholics are frustrated by what seems to be a litany of band aids or complete inaction as to the slide.  Their feelings about the bishops, including even the pope, is that they have failed in stemming the loss.  Empirical evidence would seem to back their claims, at least in the developed world. As before, I do believe that most of these people love Christ and His Church and want to see it grow.

I am not dismissing the feelings and frustrations people have, nor am I going to validate each and every one.  How do we deal with such dissatisfaction? There are some hard truths we will have to face.

First, this world is imperfect.  It is full of human beings who can be incredibly selfish.  So many have either ignored or dismissed the notion that our actions do bear consequences for myself and others.  The more selfish a society becomes, the more the fabric of the society of ripped apart.  If you notice, in the political arena, so often either greed, wrath, or envy are the underlying motivations to get people out to vote.  Getting any group of people to move in a unified direction is like trying to herd cats; a task that becomes more impossible as the size of that group grows.  Keep in mind that the population of the USA is over 321 million, and the members of the Roman Catholic Church is hovering around 1.2 Billion Catholics, with 65 Million in the USA alone.  Do we get the monumental task here?

Second, much of the world's imperfection comes from man's selfishness.  In Catholicism, we refer to concupiscence, a selfish desire that motivates the human soul towards sin. In essence , so many want the United States of Me, or the My Catholic Church. As pure or impure as the motivations might be, we want our leaders to cater to me and people who think like me.  I would guess that is because I feel I have figured out reality in all its rich complexity and know what needs to be done.  Inevitably, there will be monumental clashes as all these disparate like minded groups clash.  At stake, the institution they want to make better.  Oftentimes, those who do not think like me can either adapt, hit the bricks, or be eliminated.

Christ called for his followers to put God first.  Then they were to understand they were part of His people.  What was to be done was for the good of the entire Body.  This does not mean compromising the faith to suit an end; but means to allow the Gospel to transform us.  If that happens, then the anger subsides.  This is what St. Paul pleads with the people of Corinth in his letters.  This is more than just 'get along'; this is to be collectively transformed by Christ.

In the body politic, if we do not start asking what is in the best interest of this country and get away from what is in my best interest, we will rip apart this society.  Too many times we assume what is in my best interest is in the best interest of all as well.  This is not true.  If our vote is motivated by greed, wrath, or envy, the base of our vote is steeped in sin.  Nothing good will come of it.  Motivation matters.

It might well be true that the establishment has failed.  That said, what we seek to do to rectify that matters.  Not every overthrown establishment is replaced by something superior.  Witness the French Revolution, the Rise of Hitler, the Rise of Lenin and Stalin, and so on.  If we try to replace an establishment corrupted by human sin with en establishment built on another human sin, we will get the same result.  If we want a different result. we will need to take different tactics.  In the Church, that means the self-revelation of God comes first.  His teachings matter and can not be coopted to suit what we perceive to be a noble end.  The nanosecond I put myself above the need for conversion, I make myself a God.  We might well be successful in making a human government in our image, we will not be successful at all in trying to make a God in our own image.  It will be very difficult for us to positively effect the secular order if we are warring in the spiritual order.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Evangelization: Knowing Who You are Really Up Against

    In The Catholic Church, an increasingly popular character is the exorcist.  An exorcist is a cleric who is officially charged with combating demonic forces who have possessed a person.  It is not the business of B movies, schlock TV shows, or parlor games. It is real. Make no mistake about that.  However, no exorcist merely saunters into an encounter with demonic forces unready. He has spent much times in prayer, abstinence, and fasting.  He makes regular use of confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  He knows what he engages in is God’s work first.  He knows he is the tool, the weapon, with which battle will be entered.  He prays for his own steadfastness and fearlessness in encountering the hopelessness that is evil.  He knows that victory over the devil and his minions rest not on his power but the power of God.

    What on earth has this to do with evangelization?  Am I saying that those who have fallen away or are unchurched are possessed?  No.  However, in doing the work of evangelization, we are doing battle with demonic forces who have no interest in the conversion of human beings and will actively fight it.  Jesus understood that in the preaching of the Gospel, that the devil had an arsenal of weapons to stymie its growth.  We also know that Jesus was prone to pray much.  As to the weapons of the devil, let us look at Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23: The Parable of the Sower.  It tells us what we are up against. 

    Jesus speaks about the seed that falls on the footpath and is eaten immediately by the birds of the air.  These are those who hear the word with no understanding.  These are the indifferent.  Satan’s weapon of indifference is a powerful tool.  These are those who see no reason for conversion.  No matter how much of a mess their life is, either pride or anger have blinded them to the need for Christ.

    Jesus speaks next of that seed which falls in rocky soil and withers quickly for lack of roots.  These are those who hear the word and initially are provoked to change, but it dies off quickly.  These are those who know they need conversion, but to do so would require change in their lives.  Change that would require their letting go of their favorite sin.  They resent having to change or doubt they can change.  Here the devil uses the deadly sins, habits that prevent a person from change.  We know vices are hard to break. Good habits are harder to form than bad habits.  The devil convinces the person that either they should not have to give up their bad habits or that they can’t.  Thus they fall away.

    Jesus then speaks of the seed that falls among the thorns.  It grows but is choked off by the thorns.  These are those who hear the Word , allow it to start to transform them, but it choked off by anxiety and worry.  The devil will use anxiety and fear to stop conversion dead in its tracks.  He will use despair paired with pride and doubt to choke off growth.  In all of this, the devil and his demons will fight any seed you try to throw.  That will not suffice for the devil; he wants the sower to grow despondent and believe that they cannot do it.  He will tempt us to despair, frustration, and even abandonment of the evangelical call of Christ.  It is a good bet he is tempting you now with thoughts of how silly, foolish, and unrealistic this ’demon thing’ is and how medieval all this nonsense is.

    This, my friends, is what we are up against.  That said, be not afraid.  However as an exorcist wisely gears up for battle, so should we.  If we love the friends and family we are calling back or reaching out to, we will do these things.  We do them  because we love God, we love them, and we want their good.  People tell me they ‘have tried everything’ and yet what they do falls on deaf ears.  Might I suggest a different approach with a look at what exorcists do to prepare themselves.

    First, we pray.  We pray for the good of the individuals we are seeking to bring in or bring back.  This is not a one and done prayer.  This is a habit developed through the grace of God.  In doing so we are using this grace to invest ourselves in their good. As evangelization is not about ‘winning’ or gathering trophies, the disposition with which we come matters.  Love and care for a person and their soul cannot be synthesized. It must be real.  Without that love, the devil can easily ward off any and all attempts. In this we seek the help of the saints and angels in joining us in intercession for these people.  We do not attempt to go into battle on our own.

    Second, we fast and abstain for the good of these people.  This builds on the investing ourselves in other people’s good.  They are powerful weapons.  Remember, though, that Jesus tells us to keep our fasting and abstaining between you and Him.  This is not about publicly trying to show the person you love them.  Because we are willing to disrupt our lives and change our own habits through God’s grace, the devil knows he is coming up against a formidable opponent who is in union with God.  That does not mean he backs off; to the contrary, he will step up his game.

    Third, we make ample use of the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist.  We believe that the Sacraments are the prime conduits of grace by which we receive the strength and courage we need to engage the devil, his temptations, and his lies.  In Confession, we ask God to heal us of our sin; a sick physician is hardly a good healer.  The devil loves wounded prey.  Sin becomes first his toehold, then foothold, then method of conquering.  We can give it no quarter in our lives.  It is said the Satan knows you by your sin, hence we must strip him of his knowledge.  The devil also likes a weakened foe.  Hence the regular reception of the Eucharist in a state of grace, provided by Confession,  is so very important.  Use of the Sacraments reminds us, like the exorcist, that we are not engaging in battle on our own, but we are with our brothers and sisters, both here and in heaven, and with Christ Himself.

    Finally, like the sower in the parable, we do our part realizing that the one who transforms hearts is Christ.  We live lives that show the transformation that is possible.  That life is authentic if we stay connected through prayer, fasting/abstinence, and the Sacraments.  Holiness can not be faked.  In all these things, we set the example, be a bridge of trust, and an open door.  Remember that these are the prerequisites for engagement and not the totality.  Let us begin here though, turning not to our power of persuasion, but to the grace of God.  If we tire of poor results, we must then start with good beginnings and approach. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Why Parishes Die

I read an article just now about the closures of parishes in Bayonne NJ (in the Archdiocese of Newark) that will narrow the number of parishes from 5 to 2.  This scene plays out regularly now in the USA.  A lot can be attributed to population and demographic shifts.  I think, however, these reasons become fall guys for the real underlying problems.  Without knowing the specifics of the reasons in Bayonne, hence I am not speaking directly to that situation, there are multiple reasons why a parish closes.  Oftentimes it is the result of a perfect storm of the following:

A) They became country clubs people didn't want to belong to.  So many parishes are about as welcoming to new people as a snooty country club is to non-members.  There have been times I have seen a scene from Caddyshack play out, where Judge Smails sneers at another character who seems interested in the club , "Some people just don't belong."  This wasn't a problem demographically until Catholics started to mimic the society around them and started using artificial birth control and contracepting themselves out of existence.  We weren't producing our own Catholics nor actively evangelizing either.  We ignored two teachings of the Church (contraception and evangelization) and thought all would go well.

The word many use to describe their parishes is 'cold'.  Many think this means what people are looking for is handshakes, slaps on the back, and an atmosphere just shy of a football game.  What they mean is that they can go for years to a church and never be acknowledged even discreetly, their suffering goes unnoticed, and their needs unfulfilled.  Mass becomes a prefunctionary  duty which seems little more than putting face time in with God.  These people are largely in danger of leaving and taking subsequent generations with them.

They tire of the infighting, turf wars, gossip, and back biting.  That is what the rest of their world looked like.  They weren't looking for the same in their church.

B) The transcendence was gone.  I think it is a understated and maybe even not totally conscious understanding, that what people want is from their Church is to be reminded that there is a personal God, that He wants a relationship with us, and that we can come into contact with this transcendent God at Mass. When Mass becomes about entertaining the congregants, it switches the direction. 

When the focus became either the priest putting on a good show that would resonate emotionally with people or focused on the congregation as if they were theater goers looking to be entertained, well, we were competing on a field where we couldn't win.  We don't have the special effects capabilities.  Not saying a lot of churches don't try, but when we do, it is like digging the hole deeper.  People came to encounter the transcendent and got a song and dance about the transcendent.  They leave going to look for the transcendent somewhere else (aka spiritual but not religious).

C) These two factors lead to a vocation crisis.  We simply do not have the clergy to man the parishes anymore.  I have lots of theories about this.  I will speak of a couple pertinent to this monologue.  First, what inspires a young man to anything?  Example.  If the Mass is a show, how does that inspire?  A person so disposed to entertainment could go into secular fields of entertainment and get married and make a lot more money!  When no plea is constantly made towards the selflessness that encountering the transcendent requires, then why bother thinking of others' needs when I can accomplish the same end without all the moral baggage and disciplines required?

If the parish is a business like a country club, why give my life to that?  I can go into business and make more money and get married.  Unlike the church, where there seems to be no penalty for doing your job poorly, business rewards success and punishes ineptitude.  If the only encounters a young man is afforded is either a happy clappy condescending attitude that wants to entertain them or a cold poorly executed Mass in which the priest seems indifferent, can we blame them for not connecting with a understanding of the transcendence of God and how His Church connects us to that?

Now place this in the societal milieu that routinely criticizes and stereotypes Catholic clergy as cold, hypocrites, predators, and emotionally dead.  If the local parish offers no counter-balance to this, how on earth do we expect any other outcome as opposed to the one we have? It is not as if we are bringing a knife to a gun fight, we are bringing a handkerchief!

D) These have led to a further problem: Catholics notoriously do not invest in their parish nor tithe. It did not used to be that way.  I laugh when I hear about how rich the church is.  Sure, some live like princes (wait till they have to stand before God on that one), but most every parish financially struggles.   They do this despite paying less to their employees across the board.  They do this despite continual cut backs.  But let's be honest.  Who wants to invest in mediocrity?  Who wants to invest in programs that don't teach the faith?  Who wants to invest in Churches that do not do their jobs?  Who wants to invest in the dwindling and failing?  

Now pair this with the aforementioned business mode the church in this country takes.  We quit talking about the thanksgiving offering as an offering made to God.  We replaced it with 'we got to pay the bills' motif which switched the tithing from a thanksgiving offering to God to a 'pay for play.' This turned the collection into essentially a cash register where how much is given is dependent upon the services used by the parishioner. These are self tallied and what is seen as what things are worth becomes the amount.  We managed to take God out of the offering and replace it with human beings.  How is that working our for us?

I'll be honest, sometimes parishes can come across as Monsieur and Madame Thernadier from Les Miserables, singing 'here a little nip, there a little cut' in the numerous fees we charge for services rendered.  Want a baptism?  That'll be $50 bucks.  Want to get married?  That'll be $100 for the priest and $500 to use the Church.  Want to get Grandma buried?  Sure, that'll cost you $100.  Need to petition for an annulment?  Yeah, sure, bring your checkbook!  And on and on and on.   Where fees for sacraments (stole fees) are the only source of income for parishes (think the developing world where collections are a exercise in futility as no one has money to give) this makes sense.  But for a place such as the US where we slide collection baskets under people's noses on a regular basis, it engenders cynicism.  When we project the idea of money for services rendered, we go from the familial bond to a business.  Like with businesses, people will go where they get a better bang for their buck.  As an aside, what does this attitude do to the motif of pastor as father?  What dad charges his kids for attending their special events in life?!

E)  Finally, we forgot we were supposed to a family, a People of God, the Bride of Christ.  All of the above points to this.  A family seeks to expand through childbirth and marriage.  When we contracept ourselves out of existence or refuse to evangelize for fear of getting the 'wrong type' (defend that one before God), we will have no other conclusion but the shrinking of our congregations. When we keep settling for mediocrity, the dominant business  model we use  will be our undoing.  Consider that families will be much more patient with the quirks and shortcomings of their family members.  Business patrons will abandon a mediocre business, no matter how good it once was.  When our fellow parishioners suffer and we do nothing (I mean would be do something for those who happen to shop in the same store we do?) it tears at the fabric of the family.  When forgiveness is withheld, divisions fomented, turf wars commonplace, and general indifference is shown to expansion, how can we not think this contraction will happen?

Underlying all of this is the onerous fact that we have done such an incredibly poor job of catechesis in this country, adapting the societal 'feel good' and social reconstruction to our teachings, that we have rendered those teachings moot.  When encounter with the Transcendent God, whether it be in Mass or in our daily dealings got replaced with a social justice agenda in which Jesus is little more than a cheer leader, how did not think this will come back to bite us?

In short, if we want to stop this contraction: Get up, start reaching out for new members, put down the game console and pick a Bible and catechism (or some book that presents Church teaching on a level you can understand), start demanding better of your parish and get about the Mission of the Church.  If the parish is no more than a convenient place and time to go to Mass, then you are adding to the problem.  Don't do that!  If you are a priest: shut down the business and go back to being the dad of the parish.  Take your responsibilities seriously, understanding that your parishioners are God's flock first and you will be held accountable for your shepherding of them.  Treat the sacraments with the dignity and respect due them; if you don't believe, how will your flock?  Get out of your rectory!  After 50+ years it has become all too clear that the sheep will not shepherd themselves. 

There is nothing wrong that cannot be undone and corrected.  Why?  Because at the heart of this all stands Christ.  We believe that Christ is victorious. Perhaps we need to start acting like that!   

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Reflections on the Feast of St Stephen

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr.  In the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6 and 7, we are told that St. Stephen is one of the seven men selected by the apostles to be the first deacons.  They did this through discernment and prayer.  These seven men were to be servants who tended to the tasks of waiting on the members of the new fledgling Church as the apostles tended to the teaching and preaching ministries.  This did not exempt Stephen from proclaiming the truth of the Gospel.  It was his steadfast preaching of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for it that gets him killed.  As he is being stoned to death for blasphemy (telling the painful truth to the Sanhedrin and those who brought Stephen up on trumped up charges) he prays that God not hold this death against those killing him.  We know one of those who concurs in the act of Stephen's death is  a rather zealous  Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul.  This Saul would very quickly become the persecutor of the early church, only stopped on the road to Damascus by Jesus Himself.  There he is called to go from persecutor to apostle.  One can imagine the daily image in St Paul's head of St Stephen's martyrdom as he went through the Mediterranean basin spreading the Gospel. 

In the Gospel for today, Matthew 10:17-22,  Jesus warns His disciples that following Him might well engender persecution and even betrayal from the the closest of family.  He knew that what awaited Him was the cruelty of the Passion.  He knew the world would resent His message of mercy, forgiveness, and love.  He knew his followers would be persecuted, harassed, and some martyred.  While He warns us of this, He still expects us to live in faith and hope, unperturbed and joyful, despite whatever persecution the world could concoct.

Starting with St. Stephen, we see the followers of Christ got it.  They found something so joy filled that there were no threats that could deter them from the faith, not even the threat of death.  In the early days of the Church, many throughout the lands where Christianity spread were persecuted and martyred.  All of the apostles but St John (not through lack of attempts) would die martyrs.  It was that strength and resolve that drew the attention of their persecutors.

Christians were seen as enemies of the state by the Roman Empire.  Because they did not worship the Roman gods, they were seen as dangers.  For the Romans, the the gods were not loving gods disposed to the good of humanity; rather they were more demonic entities to be appeased; lack of being appeased led to great disaster.  When persecutions would break out and arrests were made, these Christians would be rounded up, given a chance to recant or be thrown to the lions, among other totrures.  In the Roman world, in their amphitheaters, you had spectacles of blood.  The first round were criminals who died cowardly deaths, fleeing and crying from whatever was coming at them.  Those who were to die well came later with the gladiatorial fights.  But the Christians disrupted this.  They died well.  Instead of fear and screaming, these Christians would enter singing psalms of praise and praying for those who would witness their death.  They continued the activity of St. Stephen.

As time marched on, widespread persecutions continued.  Each persecutor  would end up losing.  Christianity would survive and even thrive.  Even to our own day it is estimated that a Christian dies every 5 minutes for the faith.  We hear stories of how even children are being put to death by radical jihadists, refusing to deny Christ.  That all of us has such courage!  

This leads to two final thoughts.  Pope Francis, in his Christmas homily and Urbi et Orbi blessing, urged us to not longer turn a blind eye to our Christian brothers ans sisters being annihilated in the Middle East.  The world has been deafeningly silent to their cause.  Very few are trying to help, in fact, there are many entities including our own government who are actively  blocking aid and escape.  Say what you will about Glenn Beck, at least through his Nazarene Fund, he is raising monies and even personally going to these dangerous areas of the world to personally oversee the saving of Christians.  Raising money has been the easy part, finding any nation to take them has been hard.  Slovakia took 150 of them and they  told of pressure they were getting from the UN, the EU, and our own country not to take any.  While we belong to a church does calls for courage and strength in the face of persecution, that does not mean we refuse to help when we can.  As Pope Francis said, this silence must come to an end.

My final thought is this: How do we respond to the attacks leveled against us.  A slight understanding of US History shows that the Catholic Church has always been hated in this country.  Do we shrink away in witness in the hopes of not being noticed and ridiculed?  The secular society is ready every second to mock us, to strip away our abilities to allow faith to be the foundation of our lives.  They have successfully driven faith out of the halls of business, education, and governance.  Freedom of Religion is quickly being reduced to freedom of worship, which can be quickly eradicated as well.  Our weakness and timidity in standing tall only emboldens their next step.  We are not jihadists, though, we do not accomplish martyrdom by killing others.  Our witness comes not in suicidal frenzies, but in shows of courage and strength.  It was that witness to the Gospel that spread the Church throughout the world. Truth by told, it is only that holy boldness that has ever been successful at spreading the faith even in the worst of persecutions.

Now is a needed time of heroes!  We need the St Stephens of this world who will lovingly proclaim the Gospel in the hopes of converting souls.  For our beliefs are never spread at the tip of a sword, but by mimicking the love of Christ in all things to all people. We have those St Stephens in the Middle East and Africa.  We need them here in the USA as well!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Time to Man Up! Of Dads and Fathers

This morning I got to talking with a parishioner after Mass (yes, a Saturday morning Mass...they still happen) and our conversation was mainly about two things: A pregnancy crisis center that is opening soon here and about the state of priestly witness.  We were talking about how in the Center that was opening we had to follow the example of other centers we had been exposed to and be sure that we had something that reached out to the dads of these children in giving them the tools to be good dads. Both of us sit on the Board for this center. My parishioner is a lawyer and related how he sees the detrimental effects of men being absent in duty or negligent in duty as dads; how that is passed from generation to generation.  We are hoping that among the things we do in this center, is be a voice who calls these men to step and be the dad these children are going to need.   The dad being the best man he can be, the best dad he can be, and growing into a man of faith are all part of an equation that we know can and will stem the tide present in this culture of fatherlessness.  We know children with good fathers are afforded a better life that those who don't. 

This will take some work.  Our young men today are been largely emasculated and taught to be numbed: their role is to play video games, have sex, and complain about  how unfair life is. Our culture has tricked them into accepting little, killing ambition, and becoming destructively self centered.   Calling them beyond themselves and into nobility is so important and necessary for a healthy culture.  That behavior needs to be modeled. A dad with little ambition will train his children to be the same.  A dad who finds anything that makes him move beyond himself (faith, responsibility) troublesome and unworthy of his time will train his children to be the same.  A man who numbs himself through obsessive behaviors or sinful behaviors will pass the same down to his kids.  To reverse trends will require men to get off the couch, put down the gaming control, and get about the business of being a man.
You'll notice though, there were two subjects this morning; I have not forgotten the other.  They are intimately tied together.   They are tied so closely together because the same dynamic is in play within a parish: the faithful witness or lack thereof will resonate in a parish, either producing great good and engendering great harm.
Just as the leadership of the dad in a family is central to the passing on of faith, so the leadership of the priest, called father for a definitive reason, is central to passing on of faith.  There are a few places worthy of reflection here.  First, does the priest actually believe that he is, by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, confecting the Body and Blood of Christ?  Does the way he celebrates Mass, touches the sacred Species, and shows reverence give a witness to profound belief?  If it doesn't, how, then, will those sitting in front of him come to belief themselves?  Yes, we can point out ex opere operato (essentially, if the correct form and matter are used, the sacrament becomes what God  designs regardless of the personal holiness of the priest), but if the witness of the priest to the reality of the Eucharist is not present, how then can we engender belief and devotion?  Does the priest give ample access to his parishioners in time and energy; making himself available to them through confession and getting out among them in pastoral visits?  If the only time his parishioners are given any consistent access is for that 1 hour at Mass, what does that say?  
 I believe the way we constrict times for confession is the equivalent of taking a bullhorn out and saying, "It's not important!"  Wow.  The central reason for the Christ even is the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation it brings about.  We will hide behind the words, 'by appointment' which largely deny the penitent the option of anonymity and largely say. 'if you can get ahold of me, we'll do it.'  Imagine that dynamic within a family.  It would be destructive.  Face time, though, is not limited to confession and  Mass.  Most priests have actual degrees in theology; do we share that wisdom and learning with our parishioners?  Do we darken the doors of classrooms and classes?  When we  are silent on the passing on of the faith, we have only ourselves to blame for the lack of faith.  Many priests will point to the 2002 scandals as why they do not go around teens and children.  Let's be honest, it wasn't like most priest delegated the kids off the a legion of nannies in the form of youth ministers to do their job completely for them.
There is much more I could write on this.  Perhaps someday I'll write that book.  However, ponder this.  We know that the lack of dads will engender the next generation of men to not see marriage and being a dad as connected with sex.  It will be pleasure in the moment; a woeful cancer spread.  By the same token, a priest who is not a father to his parishioners will leave the possibility of young men in his parish entertaining the possibility of priesthood almost dead.  Dads and Fathers, our belief matters.  Our presence matters.  Our interaction with those placed in our care matters.  If we hope for change in the problems that plague our parishes and homes, it will begin with men stepping up and being the dads, the husbands, the priests, and the men we are called to be.  If it seems I am being a bit demanding of men, trust me, it is the standards I hold myself to.  I don't always achieve them, but they are the goals, day in and day out.  So, it is doable, hard but doable.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Death of Shame and Guilt

Guilt and shame are like warning lights on a car dashboard.  They signal us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  Like our cars, ignoring, denying, or suppressing our acknowledgement of these warning lights, it doesn't make the problem go away and in fact only makes the problem worse.  Guilt and shame inform us that we have done something we should not have done or have not done something they should have done.  They are warning lights from the engine that is our conscience.

 The conscience, as defined by the Church, is "Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law" ( Catechism 1778)  The conscience is that part of our human mind and soul that distinguishes between right and wrong, between good and evil.  It is not a finished product at birth, but must be formed. 

The general directionality of the conscience in a responsible human being is supposed to move from self-centered to other-centered.  There are psychological disorders where this does not happen: narcissism, sociopathic disorders, and psychotic disorders.  Part of the formation of the conscience is shame and guilt.  Shame alerts us we should express remorse or sorrow for our actions that were wrong.  Guilt helps us to understand we need to make restitution for our actions which have harmed others. Both force us to see that our actions bear consequence not merely on myself but on others as well!  They are signals that our actions and our conscience are not in sync.  To achieve equilibrium, shame and guilt should be addressed by the positive steps of contrition and reconciliation.  When these warning light go unaddressed, it is to the detriment of both the individual and everyone around them.

However these two warning lights aren't merely being ignored, we are trying to snip the wires connecting them to the engine. If we can deaden guilt and shame, we can live in a world where I am always right and owed.  How are we doing this?  Remember, the conscience must be molded.  We are doing this by actually preventing the move from self-centered to other-centered.  When we do things like  giving everybody rewards for merely participating in an activity, even if the participation was little more than breathing, we do not encourage drive to excellence.  We do not give an impetus for forward movement.  We protect from failure.  This is dangerous.  If I see no reason to change a course for betterment, than why try?  If failure is not a possibility, why try?  If I simply will be handed reward without effort, why try?  Why change?  If the world is simply going to change for me, why should I change to accommodate anyone else?  We encourage a stunting of growth which will spread like a cancer throughout the person.  It is a very short trip between 'why try' to 'I am owed.'

In the spiritual life, this is fatal.  Because everything is about me, all of my actions and words can be justified as protecting the most important thing: me! What happens then to shame and guilt?  It turns very quickly into resentment and anger.  Any entity that challenges me is now the enemy.  Any entity that doesn't cater to me, pat me on the head, tell me how good I am, and make me feel special is now the enemy.  It breeds hubris.  It breeds universalism, a heresy (false teaching) that everyone goes to heaven.  Heaven becomes the ultimate participation trophy! Anyone who believes that makes themselves fit for hell.  

When we look at our society, we see the fruit of the seed planted: young adults who want everything free and immediate, no comprehension of the consequences of their choices, a clear vision, however, of the consequences of other people's choices on them,  cruelty, and an ends justifies the means.  Anger and resentment are now the defining characteristics we see so very often.

The anger and resentment are a direct result of the attempted murder of guilt and shame.  If we wish to reverse course, it will be reconnecting the wires between the conscience and the warning signs of guilt and shame.  Guilt and shame are properly addressed with remorse and repentance.  It is not God's will for us to live in either a state of guilt and shame nor in a state of anger and resentment.  In the Catholic Church we have the sacrament of Reconciliation to address these head on.  Is it any wonder in a society where the wires are snipped that Confession lines dwindle? We need to get back to the correct formation of conscience; confession is an integral part of this forward motion. It gives a place for shame and guilt to not only go but to find resolution.  If we want the anger and resentment to subside, then we can no longer avoid addressing guilt and shame; in fact, we must let them out of their tombs and be the warning lights they are meant to be.